Who can explain the domination of SUVs?


Even in this flat market, there is one kind of vehicle that is still selling – the SUV. While all SUVs already have about 45% of the Australian market, it won’t be long before it becomes 50%. The question is why. There are many boxes they obviously do not tick and yet we still buy them in droves.

To SUV or not SUV

First of all, it is not always easy to classify the SUV. In the past, it was obvious – they were rugged off-roaders designed to handle rough conditions. But manufacturers gave the category an urban tweak to include vehicles more mechanically related to passenger cars, but looking like SUVs. Many of these are not even 4WD. Instead, they are “SUVised” versions of passenger cars, but jacked up to look high – and mighty.

So it appears SUVs have more to do with styling than rugged driving. SUV crossovers are just a blend of SUV and passenger car to capture that styling.

In Australia, the top-selling SUVs are Toyota RAV4 ($35,000), Mazda CX-5 ($31,000), Nissan X-Trail ($30,000) and Mitsubishi ASX ($25,000). Meanwhile, luxury SUVs like the Audi Q8 ($130,000), BMW X7 ($120,000), Lexus LX ($140,000), Mercedes G-Class ($110,000) are having their big moment.

Is the SUV a luxury?

In a way, it is counterintuitive to buy an SUV rather than a passenger car.

First, it costs a lot more to run the SUV because it is a heavier vehicle. The average car in Germany is now 77kg heavier than it was 10 years ago. Which? magazine in the UK found SUVs cost owners up to $733 more in fuel every year, compared to equivalent models. So we do not buy SUVs to save money on fuel.

Second, most have very few environmental credentials. They may run on polluting diesel, use more fuel in the first place, and add to congestion because they are wider than average passenger cars. European Federation for Transport and Environment said the SUV “sales boom” has pushed up average CO2 emissions by 2.6g/km since 2013, while falling diesel sales contributed a mere 0.25g/km rise.

Third, owners and their families may feel safer because they are riding high, but that is half the problem. High vehicles have a higher centre of mass, which means they roll over more easily. While passenger cars become safer with more passengers, high vehicles become less safe with more passengers. It is well documented that SUVs and trucks are more likely to be involved in rollover accidents. Further, Monash University Accident Research Centre Used Car Safety Ratings (UCSR) found occupant safety was higher in popular passenger vehicles than popular SUVs studied.

Four, they may not even be 4WD. So these SUVs are no different on rough terrain or in bad weather, than a passenger car. They are just tall – and, because you do not have to stoop down, they feel roomy.

I am free to do what I like

We suggest one big reason why people still want to buy SUVs, even though the usual practical reasons are often absent.

It is because they want the luxury of NOT doing what is expected of them. They say, I want to own this vehicle even though it is more expensive to run, worse for the environment, potentially less safe, and doesn’t go off road. It is a way of saying: I am free to do what I like.

Manufacturers certainly do emphasise the freedom aspect of these vehicles in their advertising. Moreover, evidence shows SUV drivers drive more freely and take risks, that is, with less attention to road rules. Austrian researchers found the “SUV effect” was highest for mobile phone use, then driving unbelted then violating traffic lights. Women SUV drivers, more than men, were more likely than any other drivers to be unbelted.

In a culture that seems intent on introducing more and more restrictions, do we drive SUVs to clearly state our right to free choice? Then again, if everyone around us is doing the same thing, is it really a free choice?

If you drive an SUV, visit Facebook and let us know why you bought one.

Corrina Baird

Writer and expert

Corrina used to lend her car to her kids and discovered first hand what Ls, Ps and demerits mean for greenslips. After 20 years of writing and research in financial services, she’s an expert in the NSW CTP scheme. Read more about Corrina

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